A Fresh Angle on Anglers

by Leah M. Abel

An East Peoria facility offers education and recreation for aspiring fishers of all stripes.

The stretch of Route 116 between I-74 and the McClugage Bridge sees more than 10,000 vehicles a day, yet many commuters remain unaware of the unique services offered just off the beaten path. Clearly visible from the highway, the Hooked on Fishing Park boasts a scenic view of the Illinois River and downtown Peoria—but more importantly, this hidden gem provides residents a hands-on opportunity to take part in the great outdoors and learn… free of charge.

Fishing is the oldest and most widespread sport in the world, according to Hooked on Fishing, offering a form of meditation for many—a timeless way to connect with the living world. As author Washington Irving wrote, “There is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a serenity of the mind.”

“Everyone should believe in something,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “I believe I’ll go fishing.”

Though some children have parents who can teach them all the ins and outs of the sport, many others never get that chance. Some grow up to become seniors, having never cast a line in their life; some are excluded because of physical disabilities or special needs. That’s where Hooked on Fishing comes in.

Reeling in the Years
Located at 1807 North Main Street in East Peoria, the Hooked on Fishing Park sits directly adjacent to the long-standing Dixon’s Fisheries Wholesale and Seafood Shoppe. Now in its fifth generation of family ownership, it got its start in 1896 with a tugboat manned by brothers John and Frank Dixon, Irish immigrants who founded the Dixon Bros. fishing business on the Illinois River. By 1910, the Dixons—one of the Peoria area’s first commercial fishing families—had become one of the Midwest’s major producers and wholesalers of fresh fish. In the 1920s, the Dixon family purchased the land that is now the Hooked on Fishing Park. Its history can be traced to maps of the region drawn by the French explorer Jacques Marquette; settlers in the late 17th century noted the area for the fresh spring water emerging from the ground and a year-round creek entering the Illinois River. Using a horse and buggy, the Dixons dug a pond on the lot for holding fish; it thrived through the Great Depression with populations of channel catfish, bullhead catfish and carp, considered a delicacy at the time.

By 1950, three ponds had been constructed on the property to keep up with increasing demand from fishermen. Thanks to newly-drilled artesian wells, they were renowned for their large fish, and soon became the site of public fishing derbies, attracting up to 500 people on holiday weekends. Due to the demands of the Dixons’ commercial business, however, the ponds were closed to the public in 1992.

A Lure for All
Hooked on Fishing, founded in 2008, provides free fishing education for children 15 and under, senior citizens, and special-needs individuals of any age. The nonprofit organization’s facilities include a clubhouse, outdoor pavilion, bait shack and three large fishing ponds stocked with bluegill, sunfish, catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, carp and rainbow trout. The park is staffed by 20 regular volunteers, so there is no charge for admission—though $5/person donations are appreciated; poles, tackle and bait are provided to those who come empty-handed.

The park’s motto and philosophy? “Anyone can fish!” Because it operates under a catch-and-release policy, visitors can’t actually take their fish home, but staff are determined that all visitors experience the thrill of the catch—and the best part is that anyone and everyone can participate. Children are the most common guests, as numerous area schools make annual field trips to the park, but the staff prides itself on proving to elderly first-timers and special-needs individuals that age, mobility and health cannot keep them from becoming successful anglers—the fully-accessible park accommodates all.

Bob Quinn, Hooked on Fishing president, recalls some particularly fond memories. “I helped a 94-year-old catch her first fish,” he says. “She couldn’t cast—I cast for her—but she could reel them in.” Instructors of special-needs organizations have reported on the profound effects fishing can have on people with disabilities. Upon catching his first fish, one mute visitor was so excited he made the first vocalizations his instructor had ever heard from him. Other families have fished here going back four generations—a diversity that is testament to the inclusive nature of fishing, as well as the park’s dedication to educating anglers from all walks of life.

Big Fish, Small Ponds
During its 2012 season, Hooked on Fishing hosted about 5,500 guests, making it the largest nonprofit fishing education organization in the country, which actually came as a pleasant surprise to staff members. “I’ve got a few industry fishing people,” Quinn says, “who… know what other places in the country are doing, and they said… no one else—by far—can get to 5,500 [visitors] per year.” Similar facilities do not typically have regular hours, making Hooked on Fishing a particularly unique community asset for the Peoria region.

Every day, the park’s network of artesian wells moves 500,000 gallons of drinkable spring water through its three fishing ponds. This clean groundwater is essential for the health of the resident fish, which live in higher populations than they do in nature and eagerly await the food pellets thrown by guests. As many as 5,000 fish are stocked each year in the lot’s main pond, which is 1.4 acres in size. While the ponds are up to six feet deep at their centers, their perimeters are much shallower, and volunteers are always supervising—no more than five guests per instructor—reminding everyone to keep a safe distance from the edge.

Catch of the Day
Hooked on Fishing’s most popular events are children’s fishing derbies, which take place on the first Saturday of each month from May to September. Quinn notes they are so popular that visitors often double- and triple-park their vehicles around the park in order to participate. Sometimes it gets so crowded latecomers actually have to be turned away to try again the next month. In addition to his regular duties as president, Quinn has been working on a number of new projects this season. He recently developed an educational video series about the basics of bass fishing to supplement the park’s science and biology classes. These videos target beginning anglers who hope to someday join bass fishing teams, which are becoming quite popular in area high schools. (Last year, there were more than 12,000 high-school bass anglers in Illinois alone!) One-on-one fishing instruction is also provided to children who aren’t able to receive it elsewhere.

This year has also seen the development of a new area at the park dedicated to noodling, which involves bringing catfish to the surface by allowing them to clamp onto anglers’ bare arms. While the practice can involve swimming, diving and catfish mouths up past the elbows, Hooked on Fishing offers a less daunting alternative with shallow water, smaller catfish, flags to mark their holes, and gloves for more squeamish experimenters.

Hook, Line and Sinker
In June, the park was scheduled to host a tornado relief event coordinated by Tackle the Storm Foundation, a national organization that provides fishing equipment to children who lose their belongings in a natural disaster. The foundation helped several hundred children in the Joplin, Missouri area in 2011, and now it’s doing the same for local children who lost their belongings in last November’s tornadoes.

Whether disaster victims or school groups, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, private parties of fishing enthusiasts or parents who just want their children to learn to fish, Hooked on Fishing provides a supportive, affordable and accessible fishing environment with skilled volunteers and satisfaction guaranteed. “It’s not just a place to go fishing,” Quinn says. “[People] can really learn something down here.” A&S

Hooked on Fishing operates from May through October; hours are 9am to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4pm on Sundays. For more information, visit hookedonfishingpark.org.